Everyone in China knows that official religious policy has only a nominal relationship to religious practice. The complaint comes from temple managers who are unable to register their temples, from Christian pastors tired of running their churches underground, and just as loudly from the atheist state itself and the Communist Party officials charged with enforcing the policy. Why does China continue to promote religious policies that do not fit reality and that satisfy no one?

In contrast to its religious policy, China has not been frozen at all in other policy realms. In the economy, for example, the past few decades have seen the rapid move from the agricultural responsibility system, a spurt in collective township and village enterprises followed by a general privatization, and the successful resolution of the government’s fiscal crisis in the 1990s. There are arguments about whether policy makers were leading or only following these developments, but either way they have shown a nimble ability to adapt—”to cross the river by feeling their way from stone to stone,” to borrow a phrase that Deng Xiaoping was fond of using. In the river of religion, however, they are still searching for the next stone.

The economic and social reforms that began around 1979 included major changes in religious policy. The early reform period saw the re-creation in 1980 of the five national associations that manage the five officially recognized religions, and the revitalization of Religious Affairs Bureau and the United Front Work Department, the Party organ responsible for uniting religious believers into a larger “harmonious society,” among other things. However, since the early 1980s, religious activities of all kinds have increased, and religious practices have spread beyond the five officially sanctioned faiths, while Party policy has largely remained unchanged.

Here, I will discuss two main reasons why religious policy is so removed from the realities of religious practice. First, both officials and religious practitioners have arrived at a sort of informal understanding, according to which people do not flaunt their violations of policy while the state turns a blind eye to their transgressions. Comparative evidence suggests that this can be a long-lasting solution, even though it carries some instability as well as its own modes of repression. Second, the government will find it very difficult to rework religious policy in a fundamental way until it is willing to consider maintaining a very different relationship between state and society more generally, which, if put into practice, would affect far more than religion.

Village temples have been reconstructed, and in many cases they are run by groups of local followers, as was the case historically, prior to the Revolution. Current policy, however, does not recognize these local religious institutions as belonging to any of the five state-sanctioned religions, and such temples are thus always extra-legal and subject to potential repressions. Some manage to gain recognition from Buddhist or Daoist associations, but only by allowing clerical supervision that can undermine their original purposes. Most of the temples instead survive by offering informal benefits to local officials, and often by wearing a thin disguise. One of the better-known cases of this involves what the Peking University anthropologist Gao Bingzhong calls “double naming.” He uses this term in reference to a local temple whose founders raised money from the villagers to build the temple, devoted to their local dragon deity, and from the local government to build a museum of “dragon” (i.e. Chinese) culture. The result was a temple with two signs in front, one designating it as a temple and the other as a museum.

Another version of this strategy can be seen in the case of the ancestral or lineage halls that are now being rebuilt in many parts of China. Mao had characterized both lineages and popular deities as ropes holding the Chinese people down. The government thus allowed no legal space for lineage halls, very much like its approach to the local temples. In southern Zhejiang, however, as in some other wealthier parts of rural China, halls have been rebuilt to house local rituals for the commemoration of ancestors. In many of these cases, the halls’ identity is thinly disguised, for example by a sign near the door declaring the building to be the headquarters of the village Old People’s Association. Jun Jing, in his book Temple of Memories, documents a more specialized strategy (this time in Gansu, although it occurs elsewhere as well) that lineages of the Kong surname often use. People named Kong generally claim to be descendants of Confucius, and so their lineage halls can double as general memorials to Confucian culture.

House churches and other unregistered Christian congregations offer another example. Unlike lineages or local temples, both Protestantism and Catholicism are officially recognized and organized. From the very beginning, however, many believers rejected the official organizations and preferred to practice their Christianity with more independence from state structures. These unofficial churches have been among the fastest growing institutions in China, and unregistered Christians now probably outnumber registered ones on Global Christianity,). While “house churches” often exist in some tension with the official church organizations and with the state, many have nevertheless grown large and are not secretive about their practice. They are no longer underground and in many cases no longer confined to houses.

Note that while most of these cases involve some kind of flimsy disguise, it is not plausible that local officials are really misled. Anyone who walks in the door can plainly see that a building is more lineage hall than old people’s association, or more temple than museum. Especially in rural areas, most local officials grew up in the villages for which they are later responsible and understand exactly what people are doing. Instead of deception we have something more like governance by turning a blind eye or, as the Chinese metaphor goes, ruling with one eye open and one eye closed.

As a mode of governance, this is not a uniquely Chinese phenomenon. Benjamin Kaplan describes the important historical case of “clandestine churches” in Holland and elsewhere, which for several centuries allowed for significantly greater religious diversity than the law permitted. We see it in the United States as well, with policies toward prostitution and, until very recently, homosexuality. The informality of the arrangement, however, leads to instability as people experiment with how far they can push the limits, and as officials draw new lines around what is permitted. Officials will also encourage self-censorship among clandestine groups by occasionally repressing practices and arresting followers.

Given these disadvantages, what is China gaining by closing one eye to such widespread behavior and encouraging a scofflaw attitude toward religious policy? First, the Chinese state sometimes uses policy primarily as a way of declaring fundamental values, and not necessarily with the intention of enforcing it. This logic is certainly relevant to the widespread existence of prostitution in countries, like the United States, that nevertheless would not consider legalizing it. In the case of religion, current policy implicitly makes the claim that all of China’s diverse cultural and religious practices are allied in one great United Front, and that all are working together to construct a harmonious society—in other words, that the relation between state and society is inherently cooperative, not contentious. Turning a blind eye allows this fiction to go unchallenged even as a much greater level of diversity is tolerated on the ground. Second, during a time of rapid social and economic change, the informality of the arrangements creates space for a great deal of local experimentation and flexible adaptation. Finally, the constant shadow of legal enforcement and the threat of repression discourages groups from pushing too hard against the boundaries of what is permissible.

The strategy of governing with one eye closed extends far beyond religion in contemporary China. This disconnect between policy and practice is perhaps most obvious in the world of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). As in the case of religion, Chinese regulations generally take a corporatist approach—a place is recognized for each social group to be represented by one non-state organization. The lone NGO for each sector is given a monopoly on the representation of the interests of its constituents; in exchange, it is expected to work closely with the government and Party. In practice, however, there are many more NGOs than the official system seems to allow. Many simply remain unregistered. Others register in inappropriate ways, by calling themselves for-profit companies (which have far fewer barriers to registration) or by registering with inappropriate but sympathetic supervisory organizations in the government. These techniques parallel religious groups that either remain unregistered or find some way to register as Buddhist or Daoists without transforming themselves in any significant way. For both religion and NGOs, most experts estimate that the majority of groups are bending or ignoring the relevant regulations but are nevertheless playing important social roles of which the state.

The key issue for both religion and NGOs is China’s fundamentally corporatist imagination of what the relationship between state and society should be. Officially, the government has organized all particular interests so as to be in dialogue with the state through their representative organizations and coordinated through the United Front policies of the Party. Unofficially, however, China is experimenting with all kinds of solutions to the problem of governance and social well-being (with the notable exception of electoral democracy). Yet it is not, at least for now, willing to experiment formally with a more independent society, whose relationship to the state would in turn be more complex than simple “harmony” would imply.

Reforming the religious framework to allow for more open registration sounds like a simple enough solution, but it has so far proved impossible. Even relatively minor reforms, like finding a legal way for religions to create philanthropic organizations under their own names, have been painfully slow and difficult. The fundamental problem is that any change in basic religious policy will have ramifications for all kinds of social organization, and the government has so far shown few signs of interest in the kind of broad social and political reform that would parallel its earlier economic reforms. In the meantime, governing by closing one eye may prove adaptable enough in the absence of more sweeping visions of change.

[In conjunction with this series of essays on the state of religion in China, we have published a companion piece on the history of religion in China, written by The Immanent Frame’s Wei Zhu. Read What is religion in China? A brief history.—eds.]